Jan 23, 2012

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Exclusive Interview with Naughty Dog Co-Founder Jason Rubin

Exclusive Interview with Naughty Dog Co-Founder Jason Rubin

This gaming generation has been a knockout for Sony developer Naughty Dog, but the story of success begins long before Nathan Drake hit the scene.

In 1985, high school friends Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin formed the company. Slowly turning passion to profit, the pair collaborated on several titles for the PC, Sega Genesis, and 3DO before attracting the attention of Universal Interactive Studios. With Jason and Andy leading a team of eight people, only sleepless nights, technological wizardry, and unbridled creativity could bring these talented game makers to what came next. In 1996, Naughty Dog published a colorful and innovative platformer called Crash Bandicoot for Sony’s newly minted PlayStation console. The charming characters, spectacular animation, and challenging gameplay brought gamers in droves, and the titular marsupial was catapulted to fame as Sony’s unofficial mascot. Naughty Dog’s success would carry forth onto the PlayStation 2 with famed platforming series Jak and Daxter. Combined, the works of Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin at Naughty Dog are estimated to have sold over 35 million units and earned $1 billion in revenue.

While both men have since departed from the mainstream gaming industry, their legacy remains profound. I was recently given the opportunity to interview one-half of this power duo. I am incredibly excited to share my conversation with Jason Rubin with Vivid Gamer readers. Please enjoy, and make sure to leave your comments and questions!


Vivid Gamer: Let’s get things rolling. Gamers and industry leaders know you best for your pioneering work on the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter franchises. You stepped down from your position as President of Naughty Dog in 2004. What projects have you been involved with since your departure? Where can our readers find some of your work?

Jason Rubin: I have been busy on a lot of things since Naughty Dog.  For example, I created and wrote two comic book mini-series called “The Iron Saint” and “Mysterious Ways” and build and sold a media mashup tool called Flektor to MySpace (back when MySpace was cool!).  Additionally, I have worked behind the scenes on various projects in the game industry.  Currently I am working with some ex-Naughty Dogs and ex-Flektorites on a startup called elarm.  All of my projects, and links to more information can be found at Jason@jasonrubin.com

VG: In the late ’90s, the immense popularity of Crash Bandicoot catapulted the titular character to PlayStation mascot status. Can you describe the atmosphere at Naughty Dog during this time of platform competition and character rivalries? Did you and the Dogs face huge expectations, an uncertain future, or pressure to change the Crash Bandicoot formula?

JR: Simply put, the atmosphere at Naughty Dog was one of excitement mixed with constant pressure.  Christmas comes every year, and back then, it was expected that a sequel would come out in a timely fashion.  So we packed a year and a half of development into a year, time after time, and kept hitting our deadlines.  And we never wanted to sit on our laurels.  We watched the Tomb Raider games rapidly disintegrate in quality in order to hit a yearly release schedule.  We committed ourselves to keep the quality bar high.  When we thought the platformers might get stale, we created a totally new engine from the ground up and released a kart game.  The bulk of that game was made in 8 months and 6 days, which must be some sort of record, and it is still considered one of the best kart games out there.  So yes, there was huge pressure, but mostly internally driven.  That is pretty much how Naughty Dog works to this day.

VG: The advent of the PlayStation 2 allowed Naughty Dog to focus efforts on its first new intellectual property since Crash. That IP, of course, was Jak and Daxter. When did you find out that a new Sony game console was in development? Were you one of the first to know? What kind of conversations and planning went on behind-the-scenes as the Crash franchise neared its end and the PlayStation 2 loomed on the horizon?

JR: Naughty Dog was indeed one of the first groups to hear about the PlayStation 2.  And unlike most other developers, we had programmers travel to Tokyo to take an early look at the hardware before it ever left Sony’s development building.  The first two units of hardware to leave Japan were to go to EA and Naughty Dog.  The EA mule, if you will, was stopped at the airport because Japan took the stance that the technology was of national importance, and might be used by other governments for weapon guidance or other nefarious purposes.  It took 24-48 hours to clear this up, and the PlayStation 2 was in our offices a trans-pacific flight later.  However, with all this intrigue we probably only earned a small advantage, if any, over the rest of the industry, the last of whom had their kits within 2 or 3 months.  And in any event, all developers, including Naughty Dog, was already developing on PC in anticipation of the new hardware.